Stalking: it’s a reality, even in the San Juans

Stalking. The word conjures visions of a big city’s darkened streets. A lone woman leaves a restaurant late at night, fails to notice a stranger lurking in the shadows. Fumbling in her purse for car keys, she makes her way to the parking lot. Behind her, the sound of footsteps. She stops, the footsteps stop. She takes a few more steps, they start in again. Terrified, she quickens her pace…

Does this really happen, other than in B movies? Yes, unfortunately, and it’s a truly frightening thing. But the image is glaringly out of sync with the reality of most stalking incidents. The majority of such events take place in suburban areas, residential settings, some on idyllic islands in the Northwest. And most of them stem from domestic relationships.

Nowhere is stalking more common, or potentially deadly than in cases involving separated or estranged partners: husbands and wives, same-sex couples, boyfriends and girlfriends (over the age of 16, and in a current or past dating relationship). Unhappily, some former or estranged intimate partners believe it’s okay to tail their exes, to call and hang up, to appear — unbidden and unwanted — at the ex’s place of work. But, they’re wrong: It is not okay.

It is intrusive, unlawful, and dangerous.

What exactly is stalking? RCW 9A.46.110 defines it as the intentional and repeated harassment (in person, by phone, by email, by any other means) or the following of another person causing fear in the victim. If the stalker knows or reasonably should know that the person is afraid, intimidated or harassed, even if it was not the stalker’s intention to frighten, intimidate, or harass, he or she is guilty of the offense. And think about this: It is not a defense that the victim did not actually give notice that he or she did not wish to be contacted or approached. “Repeated,” by the way, means two or more episodes of the harassing behavior.

It’s the law’s way of saying no one has the right to hound or frighten another human being.

Eight percent of all women and two percent of all men have been stalked at some point in their lives by a person they’ve spurned. This means that, statistically at least, as many as 1,120 women and 280 men in the San Juan Islands have at some point in their lives been stalked.

As a cop for 34 years, with a passion for ending domestic abuse, I believe we must confront the fact that stalking does occur here in the San Juans. I’ve lived on Orcas for six and a half years, relishing the solitude and beauty of the place, the friendliness and generosity of its people. But in that short time I’ve learned of two instances of stalking, and of the fear and anguish involved in each. The average duration of stalking behavior is 1.8 years, with 37 percent of the victims sustaining injuries (Stalking Resource Center, National Center for Victims of Crime).

If you find yourself on the receiving end of stalking behavior, please do yourself a favor: Call the police, make a report. It’s vital that you document (1) the harassing behavior and (2) the fear it’s causing you. The Main Office of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office can be reached at 378-4151, the Lopez Substation at 468-2333, and on Orcas at 376-2207. You can also call one of the crisis lines of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services for advice and instruction on how to cope with the menace of stalking (Friday Harbor, 378-2345; Orcas, 376-1234; and Lopez, 468-4567; memorize the number, it’s an easy one).

Of course, if you feel you are in immediate danger call 911 (or from a cell phone, 378-4141), without hesitation.

And for you small number of islanders who believe you’re entitled to follow and/or harass another person? Stop it. Get help. Stalking is wrong, it’s cowardly, and it’s against the law.

What can you do if you’re being stalked? Here’s an abbreviated checklist of steps you can take. Other tips, best sought and provided privately, can be obtained from DVSAS (376-5979).

¸ Tell the stalker “no” once and only once; the more you respond the more you convince him or her that the behavior will elicit a reaction from you.

¸ Notify family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers that you’ve cut off all contact with the individual. Ask them to serve as witnesses, and to record any stalking behavior (it’s not uncommon for neighbors, for example, to learn of incidents unknown to the victim).

¸ Lock your doors (including car) and don’t open the door at home without checking first to see who it is.

¸ Document every in-person contact, every sighting, phone call, email, postal letter. Save every message. A journal comes in handy for this purpose.

¸ Have co-workers or family members screen all calls.

¸ Keep a cell phone with you and turned on at all times (true, you may not get a signal…then again you might).

¸ If you’re being followed drive directly to an open business, if you can locate one, or to the Sheriff’s substation even if it’s closed; stay in your car, dial 911, honk your horn. While it’s generally not a good idea to drive to a friend or family member’s home, that may make the most sense here on the island. In any event, don’t be afraid to attract attention by honking on that horn.

¸ Explore your legal options, especially a Temporary Protection Order (other court orders are also an option once your stalker is arrested). DVSAS and the Victim Services Center of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (Sue Kimball, Director, 378-4101) can help you through the process.

¸ Don’t be embarrassed. You didn’t cause this behavior. Consider starting or joining a support group (it only takes two members).

Norm Stamper was Seattle’s police chief from 1994 to 2000. He is a member of the board of directors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of the San Juan Islands.